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The promise of a true Android-based camera isn't difficult to wrap your head around. A billion people use Android devices, many of which to take and share photos every single day. A cottage industry of apps, services, and social networks for capturing, editing, and sharing photos has sprung up. An Android camera could fill in the missing piece: killer camera hardware.
The problem? Android is a horribly fragmented platform, and app developers—including Google itself—have a hard enough time building software that works with hundreds of different devices with varying screen sizes, processors, operating systems, and cameras. Adding in support for even basic camera functionality like shutter buttons, optical zoom, and interchangeable lenses is an expensive, laborious process with little guaranteed payoff.
That hasn't stopped Samsung, however, which is back once again with the Galaxy Camera 2 (MSRP $449.99). With improved specs, an updated Android operating system, and a slightly different design, the Galaxy Camera 2 improves on the (somewhat surprising) success of the original Galaxy Camera. Though the Galaxy Camera 2 still has some of the same issues of its predecessor, it's still the best option for people who want a dedicated camera that runs Android apps.
Compared to most cameras, the Samsung Galaxy 2 camera is the height of minimalism, eschewing these funky things you may have heard of before: buttons. It sports a mere three physical controls: flash release, power, and shutter release with a toggle for zoom, leaving the rest to for the touchscreen to handle. If you're an experienced photographer used to physical controls, it'll simply frustrate you. But if you're using the Galaxy Camera 2 instead of a smartphone, it's actually an improvement, especially when using the zoom toggle and shutter button instead of just the screen. That's good, because the screen picks up fingerprints better than a seasoned FBI agent and glare is a battle anytime you're shooting during the day.
Navigating the menus with the touch screen is unfortunately quite the headache, as you almost always click the wrong thing sending you hurling back to the start of the menus to repeat the process. This isn't helped with the fact that the manual controls are buried within two submenus that you must go through every time to make changes. There are smaller quick settings at the top to "quickly" change shutter speed, aperture, ISO, and exposure compensation, but they are so small you rarely get the one you want first try. If you do manage to get the right setting to change, the scroll to change that setting is very unresponsive and you end up clicking out of the scroll and have to repeat once again. This is extremely frustrating and if you're shooting anything remotely spontaneous, potentially causing you to miss your shot.
Once you get past the navigation and touch screen, the camera is refreshingly basic. There is a pop-up flash that snaps to attention when you hit the release, like a tiny cobra waiting to strike. There's also a zoom toggle, but it's awkwardly designed and seems to lack throttling control, making small changes difficult. Ultimately it's an improvement on most smartphone cameras, but it's nowhere near as easy to operate as even a basic point-and-shoot.
On paper, the Samsung Galaxy 2 camera is almost identical to its predecessor. It has brought what is typical in the mobile world – a software update a new body – to the camera world. The changes are as follows: upgrading from Android 4.1 to 4.3 and upgrading the 1.4 GHz processor to a 1.6 GHz processor... That is about all. It has the same lens, same sensor, same performance, same... you get the picture. Since it is basically the same camera, we predicted it would get mostly the same test results and it did not surprise us there.
Noise was a strange test when it came to the Galaxy 2. The noise levels stayed below our cutoff for image quality through the entire ISO range, which seems great. However, the Galaxy 2 has heavy noise reduction and that causes the heavy loss of quality at a rapid rate. If you look at the photo below, you will notice detail with Rosie the Riveter drop around ISO 400 and continue exponentially as you raise the ISO. Hardly the "riveting" performance we were hoping for:
Things only get worse when looking at a much more detailed crop. Here the Cheshire cat is about the only thing smiling, not that you can really tell with detail dropping as soon as ISO 200:
Other than aggressive noise reduction at higher ISO speeds, the main culprit here is the lens. It has a 21x optical zoom, which gives you far, far more range than any smartphone on the market, but it's not a particularly great lens. Details in the center are fine at base ISOs, but when you actually zoom in the overall level of detail drops dramatically.
We also found multiple occurrences of "pincushion" distortion and chromatic aberration at each focal length. You can not select color modes on the Galaxy 2, so you are pinned down to using the default mode. However, this mode isn't all that bad with a color error (∆C00 corrected) of 3.09—anything around 3 is considered average for an entry level point-and-shoot—and over-saturation of 109.8%, but it gets the job done. You can compensate the color accuracy with multiple effects that shuffle up color significantly.
Video performance was also mediocre. It is basically the exact same as the original Galaxy camera, which isn't a great surprise given that the components here are essentially unchanged. Artifacting, trailing, sharpness, and lowlight sensitivity all offered middle of the road results, comparing well to point-and-shoots but lagging behind better cameras. It's not much better than what you'll find on a flagship smartphone, except for the ability to use the zoom lens.
Since the Galaxy 2 camera runs on Android 4.3, you have a practically limitless potential for adding in cool extras and neat features. You can download apps such as VSCO Cam or Photoshop Express to greatly increase your editing options, and use the default apps or something like Instagram for capturing photos.
As a result the real strength of the Galaxy 2 is its ability to share these photos quickly over numerous social media and photo sharing networks right from the camera. Instagram, Google+, or even Facebook apps are far more polished here, with interfaces that are light years ahead of the half-baked social media integration found on most cameras. You can also stash away photos or sync them between devices with apps such as Dropbox, which comes with 2GB of free web storage or 50GB if you already have a Galaxy smartphone.
There are also a great amount of options to sync the Galaxy 2 directly with other devices. You can use "MobileLink" to automatically send any photos taken with the Galaxy 2 to your phone without the need of a shared WiFi connection. The easiest way is to take advantage of NFC – Near Field Connection – technology to connect directly to your NFC-compatible phone, laptop, mobile phone, desktop computer, and even your smart TV. (Apple's iPhones don't currently support NFC, but could in the future) Once connected you can also use this link to let your phone function as a remote viewfinder and controller for the camera, which is perfect for framing group shots with the camera across the room.
When it comes to the actual camera hardware you've got a 21x optical zoom. The camera is much more stable than you'd expect, which makes the full zoom easy to use. The one caveat to that is that the zoom and hardware shutter button don't work with every app—apps have to be specifically coded to recognize and take advantage of the Galaxy Camera 2's hardware. Since most apps haven't done that, you're stuck using on-screen controls alone whenever you want to snap a pick with an app like Instagram. It's probably the biggest strike against the very idea of an Android-based camera, as most app developers won't go to the trouble to code in support unless Google's own API makes it dead simple to do.
Samsung seems pretty hell-bent on producing a camera that takes advantage of the Android platform and, all things considered, it isn't doing a terrible job. The Galaxy 2 does a great job of giving users the ability to take a photo and get it out to the world instantly, as long as you're using Samsung's own proprietary applications. And even putting that caveat aside for a moment, the fact that you have access to endless apps on the Android market makes this basically a one-stop-shop for web photographers. You no longer have to get to a laptop or take photos with your phone to get images out there. You can snap, edit, upload, and bask in the glory of internet photography fame... or send a selfie to your mom. #HiMom
While the features and connectivity make up a huge portion of the MRSP of the Galaxy 2, the hardware is on par with most entry-level point-and-shoots. We certainly recommend this to anyone that needs to stay connected and get that instant gratification from posting fast and furiously. However, if you are someone that isn't tethered to the web, then I would say there are better cameras in the price range. The Canon Powershot S120 is a much better camera (albeit with far less optical zoom) in the same price range with less connectivity. You could even find a Canon Powershot S110 for around $250 and get better images.
Ultimately, the Galaxy Camera 2 is sure to be popular given the success of the first Galaxy Camera. That's great, because the promise of an Android-based camera is tantalizing, to say the least. With the original Galaxy Camera and the Galaxy NX, this makes the third time Samsung has tried to make this a reality. Though things seem to be getting better, the fundamental issues–such as the lack of hardware support in the Android apps you'd actually want to use regularly—still remain. Can Samsung hash those out? Maybe not, but the Galaxy Camera 2 is at least an indication that the company isn't giving up on the idea just yet. If you're willing to live with the growing pains in order to have a truly connected camera, then the Galaxy Camera 2 is a fine choice. There may be better cameras for the money, but there's no better Android-based camera today.
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